A life in limbo

By Caroline Moorehead

Financial Times

Published: February 26 2005

The last time Madina Louemba saw her son Jean-Majjis he was in a children’s hospital in St Petersburg, recovering from frostbite to his face and hands. That was on January 12 2002. Today, Madina is an asylum seeker in Sezze, a small railway town below Sezze Romano, in the plain of Latina in Italy, reclaimed from the malarial Pontine marshes by Mussolini in the early 1930s. Jean-Majjis is living with friends in St Petersburg, moving between them, so that the burden of caring for a young boy does not fall on any single one of them. Their strange story is the story of modern asylum, and about how politics, timing, and above all luck govern the existence of those who flee persecution to seek refuge in the western world. Madina and Jean-Majjis are neither uniquely unlucky nor more unhappy than many others; but their story is terrible.

Madina’s grandmother, born in Baku in Azerbaijan in 1906, was the Soviet Union’s first woman geologist. Her daughter, Madina’s mother, followed her into Baku University to teach geology in her turn, before marrying a geophysicist. Madina, their eldest daughter, took a first degree in hydrogeology, and a Master’s in both mineralogy and geology. Though her younger brother Aleksandr and sister Anna decided to break away from the family tradition, they all continued to live safely and companionably together, even if tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in the region caused periodic political difficulties. Baku is an oil republic and jobs were plentiful. In 1984, when Madina was 18, she met a second- year student at the university called Jean-Marie Louemba. He was 24, an organic chemist, and he came from Congo-Brazzaville, one of the many young foreign students brought over from Africa on scholarships at that time to study in the Soviet Union. In spite of extreme opposition from her father, who was in any case soon to leave the family and move to Moscow, Madina and Jean-Marie got married. Their son, Jean-Majjis, was born in 1992.

In Sezze, to keep out the bitter winds that sweep down from the mountains across the old Pontine marshes - where Horace once complained that he was kept awake by the croaking of innumerable frogs - Madina wears a handsome, somewhat battered, fur coat that reaches down almost to her ankles. She brought it with her during her flight from Russia, and has kept it with her during her many moves. A striking, purposeful woman with thick black hair, she speaks good English and dresses in black. In a deep, slow voice, she describes the events that followed the birth of her son with precision, careful always to underline her own part in them.

When the baby was nine months old, Jean-Marie, having completed his PhD, returned to Congo-Brazzaville. The plan was that Madina and Jean-Majjis would follow him once he had found work and a house. Though telephoning was less easy in those days, and though Congo was in a state of conflict, he kept in touch. Then his letters and calls stopped. One day Madina got a message from a friend in Germany. Jean-Marie’s neighbourhood had been bombed and flattened: there were no survivors. Since no body was ever found, Madina was eventually forced to divorce her dead husband.

Meanwhile, she worked, at a good job in the oil industry, saving money and investing it in oil, and sending Jean-Majjis to a local school where only his fluent Azerbaijani protected him from bullying about his African father. One morning, the telephone rang in her office. It was a wrong number, but the man on the other end kept talking and soon they were exchanging daily calls. Sahib Salimon was pure Azerbaijani, Madina says, in contrast to her own rich ancestral mixture of Armenian, Kazakhstani, German, Russian and Swedish. After three weeks, they met in the centre of Baku and by the time Sahib had carried three-year-old Jean-Majjis home on his shoulders it seemed right that they should spend time together. Sahib was an electrical engineer. He moved in to share the house with Madina and her mother.

In the mid-1990s Baku was full of refugees, Azerbaijanis expelled from neighbouring Armenia, who lived in shanty towns around the city’s edges. Many had tuberculosis. Sahib, Madina, her brother Aleksandr and their friends set up a human-rights group, opened an office and collected money and medicine for the refugee families, as well as campaigning on their behalf. They received occasional warning visits from the secret services: their too-keen interest in human rights was being monitored - and frowned upon.

And then, in the winter of 2001, Madina’s world began to fall apart. Her group had organised a demonstration in the city centre to draw attention to the destitute refugees. Hundreds of sympathisers and refugees turned up, as did the secret police in unmarked cars. Madina and Sahib managed to escape, but Aleksandr was caught and sent to Baku prison for six years, for disturbing the peace and acting as a ringleader. Events now moved quickly. Every few days Madina picked up the phone to hear further threats and warnings. Two other members of the group were arrested.

Leaving Aleksandr in jail in Baku, Madina and Sahib reluctantly moved to St Petersburg, where Madina’s sister Anna was already living, and where Madina believed they would be safe. St Petersburg, she reasoned, was the most liberal city in Russia. Jean-Majjis was sent to a local school, but moved to a private one after being bullied about his dark skin. Madina and Sahib had savings from their work in Baku and from her investment in Baku’s oil business, and both now managed to find good jobs. Soon they made new friends with people who had recently started the Committee for Human Rights, which worked with refugees from the Chechen wars and the troubles in the Caucasus.

Like the Baku refugees, these families were very poor and many were ill, and Madina was disconcerted to discover how badly they were treated in St Petersburg. By the middle of January 2002, she had become the co-ordinator for various human-rights groups, writing speeches and preparing campaigns. When Chechens were ill-treated by the police, she would be the first to lodge a complaint.

In March 2002, the Committee decided to hold a demonstration. It was extremely cold and Madina wore her fur coat. When the police arrived and trained water hoses on the demonstrators, the fur froze white and stiff. Although threatening calls now started to come daily, although members of the Committee were repeatedly stopped and questioned, although secret police raided the offices and took away computers and files, Madina refused to believe that anything serious or bad could happen. It was only when she flew to Sweden with a report she had prepared on human-rights violations by the security forces, and received a call warning her not to publicise it or something might happen to her son, that she grew anxious.

She was right to be fearful. One evening, when she was alone in the office, the police came to get her. She was questioned, beaten, slapped, her arms pinioned painfully behind her back. Released after 24 hours, she spent a week in hospital. She emerged to lodge complaints against the police; the doctors in the hospital were sympathetic, saying that they had seen bruises and injuries like hers before, but that they had families and could not risk their safety by bearing witness.

Madina could now, should now, have kept silent. It is hard, sometimes, to comprehend the kind of admirable courage that makes people press on. The Committee closed its office, but Madina and Sahib continued to help the refugees, inviting them to their own house and finding doctors to look after them. The telephone threats continued. Madina was again arrested. This time they put a bucket on her head and beat it until her ears rang, and they hit her with a plastic bottle full of water so that her body turned blue with bruises. Two broken ribs and concussion took her back into hospital. When she came out, she went to the police station and tried to lodge a complaint with higher authorities.

If Madina’s story and her own stubborn determination sound improbable, they have to be seen in the context of the fragile state of human rights in the new Russian Federation, and of the extraordinary bravery of activists who continue to challenge the abuses of police, army and secret services against refugees and minorities. Although, in the early 1990s, Russia did adopt one of the most progressive constitutions in Europe - from the point of view of respect for human rights - the two wars in Chechnya and a series of terrorist attacks effectively have led to considerable human-rights violations, in which activists and liberals have been blamed by the authorities and in the media for lack of patriotism and collaboration with separatists. Chechens, and all those supporting Chechens, have routinely been arrested, ill-treated and even “disappeared”. The second Chechen war was labelled a “counter-terrorist” operation, and a “law on countering terrorist activities” has been brought in under President Putin, whose commitment to human rights is perceived as limited. Meanwhile a “concept of national security of the Russian Federation”, adopted in 2000, defines control over religious life, “countering the negative influence of foreign organisations and missionaries” as one of the priorities of the state. Between them, these laws have provided the security services with opportunities to prosecute religious and human-rights organisations, and given them licence to limit freedom of association.

According to Amnesty International and the Helsinki Monitoring Group, members of the Society for Chechen Friendship have been threatened, harassed and detained, several activists have been murdered or “disappeared”, while lawyers and journalists have been persecuted and intimidated. In the ongoing conflict in the Chechen republic, Russian security forces enjoy almost total impunity for serious violations of human rights. On May 21 2003, a courageous woman called Zura Bitieva, who had provided the west with regular information about crimes committed by Russian Federal Forces in Chechnya, was murdered, together with her husband, brother and son, by men believed to be from Russian special forces. Her daughter, Louisa, another immensely brave woman, has continued her mother’s work.

On October 18 2002, Sahib was arrested by plain-clothes police. He disappeared. Weeks later, Madina learnt that he was in a prison on the outskirts of St Petersburg, held incommunicado. And then, on December 31, something happened that made all that had gone before seem insignificant. Jean-Majjis was kidnapped.

Leaving a party one afternoon to walk the short distance home to their house, Jean-Majjis was picked up by the police. It was snowing hard. They put him in the back of a car and drove him around. Later that evening, on the outskirts of the city, they pushed him out into the snow. By the time a passer-by had found him and taken him to hospital he was badly frost-bitten. He was also shocked and silent. He recovered, although he would not talk to his mother about what the police had said and done. On January 12, when Madina went to see him, they had taken the bandages off and she was told that she could collect him two days later.

But when she arrived to take him home, he was gone. A doctor told her that he showed such acute signs of mental instability that he had been transferred to the children’s wing of a psychiatric hospital. She was prevented from seeing him. But Madina absolutely refused to accept that Jean-Majjis was in any way mentally disturbed or in need of psychiatric care. She begged, she argued, she found lawyers. But she was barred from the hospital. More was about to come. On February 16, getting into a taxi with her sister to go to the dentist, she saw a policeman get out of his car and take aim with his gun. He fired, and her sister fell down dead in the snow. Later that night her phone rang: it was a man warning her that next time they would not miss. Madina fled to friends.

It was now that her life as a refugee began. I first met Madina in the summer of 2003 in Newcastle, England, in a hostel in Angel Heights for female asylum seekers. She had been there for five months and was waiting to hear whether she was going to be interviewed by the Home Office and have her claim for refugee status assessed, or whether they were going to transfer her to Italy. In their haste to get her out of Russia, her friends had got her a visa for Italy. When the plane touched down in London, on its way to Rome, she had decided to ask for asylum, but under the Dublin Convention on asylum applications she could be sent to her country of apparent first choice. The visa in her passport suggested that she intended to go to Italy. In Newcastle, Madina was miserable and frantic: she had no news of Jean-Majjis and spent her days and nights wandering the purple and yellow painted corridors of the former nurses’ home, a thin, desperate figure in her black clothes.

In October 2003, after almost eight months of waiting, Madina was asked to report to the immigration office. She was told that it had been decided to send her to Italy after all, and she was kept overnight in a police cell before being transferred to Bedford removal centre, one of the places of detention where refugees are held, pending deportation. A friend brought her clothes and her fur coat to the airport. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, where her aeroplane landed that evening, the police computer was down and no one knew what to do with her. She waited for five days in the transit lounge, sleeping on the plastic and metal chairs. Twice a day, she was given a voucher for a meal. Rescued at last by the Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati (CIR), one of Italy’s most effective refugee organisations, she was eventually taken to Sezze Romano, to a small flat she shared with two Nigerian girls, their children and a Ugandan in the hills far above the plain. Not long ago she was moved again, down to Sezze Scalo, a bleak and cheerless railway town filled with the Fascist architecture of the 1930s. Along the way, she met a young Pakistani girl, also an asylum seeker, so badly disfigured by acid poured over her by her jealous husband that Madina reasoned her own troubles were light by comparison.

That was 15 months ago. Able to contact her friends in St Petersburg by mobile telephone and e-mail, she knows that Jean-Majjis, after more than two years’ incarceration in a psychiatric ward, is now safe. Although a law on “psychiatric care and the rights of citizens in therapy” has brought a measure of dignity and security to mental patients - and the old Soviet practice of using psychiatry as a political weapon against dissidents and activists has been curbed - it remains true that people in the Russian Federation are still put in psychiatric hospitals against their consent and with limited safeguards. Of her brother Aleksandr, and of Sahib, she knows nothing. In November, Madina was summoned to Rome to present her case for being accepted into the country, to convince the commission that hears these matters that she was a true refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, with a “well-founded fear of persecution” and unable to go home. She really believed she would get asylum. Shortly before Christmas, she heard that she had been turned down.

Italy is not especially unwelcoming to those who manage to cross its borders in search of asylum. Unlike most European countries, it has no asylum law as such, only a series of clauses within the various immigration laws, which have become tougher over recent years and are set to become still stricter as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi keeps his promise to cut down on the ever-growing number of illegal migrants trying to find work in Italy. The Bossi-Fini Law, offered as a gesture to his far-right coalition partners, and particularly to the Lega Nord’s anti-immigration and anti-Muslim supporters, will, when finally enacted, bring tighter restrictions on asylum, along with draconian new rules on illegal entry and working permits. (It was Umberto Bossi of the Northern League who suggested not long ago that cannons should be set up along Italy’s coasts to deter would-be asylum seekers.) Though Italy will have to conform to the EU directives on asylum to which it is bound, regulating such things as reception, procedure and treatment, the generosity of spirit seen at earlier EU meetings has long since evaporated, as governments agree lowest possible standards rather than best practices and resist signing away control over immigration. Deportations, policing the borders and detention have all become the order of the day. And, in practice, though neat and orderly on paper, Italy’s refugee and asylum policies, along with its immigration policy, are in the same state of chaos as they are throughout the entire European Union.

In Rome, as in Madrid, London and Paris, confusion reigns over the distinction between illegal immigrant and bona fide asylum seeker, fanned by a xenophobic press - the public pulled one way by their awareness of the need for cheap foreign labour and the other by unreasoned fears of invasion by hordes of Arab terrorists. Under the old Martelli Law, asylum seekers were promised a hearing within 45 days; under the Bossi-Fini revisions, it will be set at within 20 to 35 days, followed by acceptance or deportation. Madina is not the only asylum seeker in Italy, however, to have waited a year for her first hearing. Many wait for 18 months or even two years, during which time they may not work - that is, they may not work in most regions, although a few, such as Veneto, allow them to do so.

Up and down Italy, in hostels or sleeping rough, scattered in the hill-towns and along the plains, are Nigerians and Rwandans, Sri Lankans and Eritreans, Turks and Iraqis, simply waiting. The more fortunate are given beds in “Case di Accoglienza” - hostels that provide them with beds and meals - and, occasionally, Italian lessons, though provision varies greatly from region to region. After an initial sum of around £500, they receive no more money. In 2004, 9,018 asylum seekers had their first hearings: they came from Liberia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kosovo, Iraq and elsewhere. Most - 8,150 - were eventually turned down and directed to leave Italy, putting the acceptance rate at around 10 per cent on a first interview, similar to the rest of Europe. The Iranians, with 31 out of 71, had the highest acceptance rate; of the 37 Russians who applied for asylum, only three were recognised. Luck and politics, as the CIR sees it, play their part in Italy as elsewhere: since Berlusconi and Putin became such friends, recognition for Russian asylum seekers has dropped. “Whether states like it or not,” says Daniella di Rado at the CIR offices in Rome, “the granting of asylum is highly political.” In a system so arbitrary, it is no surprise that asylum seekers prefer to try their luck in some countries over others: between January and September 2004, Austria recognised 94 per cent of Russians asking for asylum as true refugees, while the Slovak Republic accepted only two out of 1,081 applicants.

What does distinguish Italy from much of the rest of Europe, however, are its 13 Centri di Permanenza Temporanea (CPTs), the absurdly named “permanent temporary centres”. These are former barracks, warehouses and even vast converted containers, in which those who arrive illegally on Italy’s shores may be held for up to 60 days, while officials decide whether they are blatantly in search of work - in which case they may be deported rapidly - or whether they have a genuine case under the 1951 Convention. As the crackdown on illegal immigrants intensifies, so a growing number of migrants are trying the asylum route, which in turn - as in all parts of Europe - leads to further confusion between immigrants and asylum seekers. Some 42,000 people were deported from Italy in 2004, a huge rise over recent years and a reflection of Berlusconi’s tough new stand, although it is still said that 95 per cent of all those who appear before the Commission and are turned down do not actually leave the country, but vanish into the black economy. The CPTs have become infamous in Italy for their appalling conditions. Between June and November 2003, teams from Medici Senza Frontiere (MSF) visited every centre in Italy. Its report was highly critical, finding the places of detention so ill-equipped and grim that large numbers of detainees were driven to vandalism and self-mutilation, and many appeared completely stupefied by tranquillisers. MSF has not been allowed inside a CPT since its report appeared.

Because of its geographic position and long coastline - more than 7,000 kilometres - Italy has now become the first country of arrival for more asylum seekers and migrants than any of its EU partners. A few go overland from the former Yugoslavia, but most arrive by sea, making the boat people of Italy - 20,000 arrived in Sicily alone in 2003 - the seafaring refugees of our times. The Italian island of Lampedusa is Europe’s southernmost tip, a spit of barren, flat, rocky land, looking like the skull of a primitive, long-jawed creature, its nose tapering to a thin wedge. Lampedusa is neither pretty, nor, with its jagged, limestone cliffs, hospitable. Yet it is here, on the long calm days of spring and summer, that the refugees arrive almost daily from the coast of North Africa, in their battered and crumbling boats, frightened, unsure, expectant. Experts in asylum matters, who study the flows of refugees and their journeys, call it the “blue route”, after the waters of the Mediterranean; it has become a lucrative source of the estimated $7bn revenue from the world’s traffic in smuggled people.

It is Lampedusa’s extreme vulnerability to unwanted arrivals by sea that has recently prompted the Italian government to make deals with its North African neighbours, much as it made a deal a few years back with Albania, since when the number of clandestine arrivals from the east has dropped. In return for unspecified investments in tourism and industry, the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, and most recently Libya, have undertaken to patrol the waters along their coastline, arresting and returning to shore any boatloads they intercept. The agreement with Libya is more far-reaching than the others, in that Libya has agreed to build camps for the refugees and migrants they arrest. These holding centres have attracted considerable concern among refugee experts who are worried that, with no outside scrutiny or international standards, genuine refugees with real fears of persecution are likely to be returned home. Libya’s own human-rights record is poor, and it has never signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, with its mandate to protect refugees, has no access to the camps. Since the summer of 2004, Libya has been trying to get rid of its own illegal immigrants, deporting them over the border into Niger, where 18 were found dead not long ago, having wandered and got lost in the desert. By the end of 2004, 98 boats setting out from the Libyan shore had been intercepted and turned back, and 40,000 migrants and refugees picked up.

Journeys of the kind made by refugees who try the Lampedusa route lie at the very heart of the asylum story. Though of little interest to those who determine refugee status - fear of persecution alone governs whether or not an asylum seeker is given refugee status - journeys occupy an important place in the experience of each and every refugee. In the narrative of their lives, horrifying journeys count.

Tesfay, whose sinking boat reached Lampedusa early in June 2003, was a student in Asmara when he was drafted to do his military service in the Eritrean army. He was an able cadet, and when his two years were up, he was invited to train to become an officer. But ethnic and clan differences between his father’s family and the government took him and his four younger brothers into prison, where they were tortured, and where seven of their friends died from their injuries. In the summer of 2002, during a fight between prison guards and local militia, while Tesfay was outside the jail on a work detail, he managed to escape. His journey to safety took just over a year.

It began with a five-day walk through Eritrea, with the help of friends, towards the border with Sudan. Along the way, shepherds gave him food and water. Arrested at the border by the Sudanese and sent back to Eritrea, he managed to avoid capture and make his way across. There, friends of his father’s put him in touch with people smugglers who, for $1,200, which he was able to borrow, agreed to let him join a party of people making their way clandestinely into Libya. They set out in several vehicles, across the desert, 40 men and women, all of them young and all from Africa. One vehicle broke down, and then another. The smugglers took the last, promising to come back with spares and a new vehicle. The days passed: they did not return. There was very little food or water. Finally the group decided to set out on foot. People began to collapse: they were left where they fell. The food ran out, and then the water. One morning they reached an oasis. The parched walkers drank and drank; several died. By the time the survivors reached a village, the party was down to 11, most of them women who turned out to be hardier than the men. Tesfay was one of the men: he was determined to live, he says, and, if he had to die, he decided he would prefer to die in Libya, a free man.

Libya, however, was not welcoming. Tesfay found the Libyans racist and hard. When he had earned some money doing casual work, he paid another $1,200 to a people smuggler to take him by boat to Italy. Late one night, 140 would-be asylum seekers boarded a frail wooden boat and put out to sea. It was very rough. The engine failed. The water and food ran out. After drifting at sea for six days, the wind pushed them to land. It turned out to be not Italy but Tunisia. Tesfay, again narrowly escaping capture, made his way back to Libya, found work, saved some money and gave a new trafficker $1,400 to take him again to Italy. This time, in the company of 130 Eritreans, Nigerians, Liberians, Ethiopians, Sierra Leoneans and Ghanaians, he found himself, within 24 hours, off the coast of Lampedusa. As the boat broke up and began to sink, its passengers were pulled to shore by the carabinieri who patrol these waters.

Tesfay spent some time in a CPT, and then waited over a year for his interview with the Commission in Rome. He has now been granted refugee status in Italy, and with it residence and work permits. He is safe, but he cannot find work, however hard he tries. Of his four brothers, he has no news, and this, he says, fills him every day with grosso dolore, great pain. He knows only that his father has been killed. The question that most preoccupies him, that he asks the immigration authorities again and again, is whether there is some way that he can bring his 10-year-old niece to Italy, because she needs an operation on one of her legs, which is shorter than the other. In the morass of legal and humanitarian rulings that govern refugee life, no one is certain about the answer.

When Madina heard, not long before Christmas, that her application for asylum had been turned down, and with it all hope of a work or residence permit, or of having Jean-Majjis join her from Russia, her first thought was about all the waiting she had done. For all the months in Newcastle, the days in the Bedford removal centre, the time sleeping in Fiumicino airport, the months in Sezze Romano, she had held on to the fact that the wait, until her life took shape again, would not last much longer. By sheer dint of her considerable will, she convinced herself that it was, in the greater scheme of things, a manageable and not too lengthy time. Refugees, as she says, get used to waiting. They wait for interviews, for letters, for permissions, for money, for travel documents; they wait in queues and lines and corridors and in the street. “First I spent my days fleeing,” an Iraqi refugee said to me in a detention camp in Western Australia, “now I spend my days waiting.” When she heard that she had been turned down, Madina felt nothing but despair. And then, because she is strong and determined, because she is absolutely sure in her own mind that she is a true refugee under the 1951 Convention, and that if she were returned to Russia she would face persecution and possibly death, she set her mental clock again, shifting the horizon of waiting far into the future. She is appealing the Commission’s decision to turn her down and she knows, because CIR has told her, that her appeal may take several years. “And so I wait. And I know that this wait will be a long wait.”

Caroline Moorehead is the author of “Human Cargo: Journeys Among the Refugees” (Chatto, 2005). She has also written a biography of Martha Gellhorn.